The theologian Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb guaranteed the Saudi rulers their religious legitimacy. The sovereigns, in their turn, granted the cleric and his followers a monopoly on Islam’s interpretation

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The theologian Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb guaranteed the Saudi rulers their religious legitimacy. The sovereigns, in their turn, granted the cleric and his followers a monopoly on Islam’s interpretation. Exported throughout the world thanks to the kingdom’s huge resources, even this controversial, ultra-conservative doctrine has had to cope with the modernization that has thrown the founding pact into crisis and generated conflict within the religious establishment.


The Sunni ulama (clerics) of Saudi Arabia have struggled to cope with the country’s modernisation and socio-political changes affecting the founding Saudi religious traditions developed by Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb in the eighteenth century. Although some ulama are resistant to change, others have cautiously embraced the progression of Saudi society, including by modifying their religious positions to suit evolving circumstances. This has resulted into contestations and negotiations among Saudi religious circles, at times leading to vigorous debates over the authenticity of Saudi religious identity.


The founder of Saudi religious thought,[1] Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, preached religious purification through the removal of what he saw as corrupt practices. The purpose of the purification was the promotion of absolute monotheism. His teachings were at odds with some Shia and Sufi practices. His mission found political backing from Muhammad Ibn Sa‘ūd, the founder of the Saudi state in 1744. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb granted Muhammad Ibn Sa‘ūd religious legitimacy to rule; Ibn Sa‘ūd in turn allowed the cleric and his followers a monopoly over religious matters. Together, the enemies of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb and Ibn Sa‘ūd were purged, and Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s interpretations of Islam became a theological constant deployed by subsequent generations of Āl Sa‘ūd rulers and Wahhabi clerics for the unification of Arabia and the establishment of the modern state of Saudi Arabia in 1932.



The Beginning of the Clash


The modernisation of the Saudi state under the leadership of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz ‘Abd al-Rahmān (1875-1953), also known as Ibn Sa‘ūd, changed the dynamics between the ruling family and the ulama. Ibn Sa‘ūd’s pragmatic approach to governance, and his efforts to transform the Saudi state, caused him to clash with conservative ulama.[2] This does not mean that the ulama and the rulers had always enjoyed cordial relations before: some would highlight instances of contestations between the ulama and the ruling family during the second Saudi state (1824-1891). However, Ibn Sa‘ūd was a different kind of ruler from those who had preceded him, pushing boundaries including by working with non-Muslim foreign dignitaries. Ultimately, as the Saudi state enjoyed oil wealth and rapid modernisation, the ulama were forced to accept that their input into the state’s political affairs had declined. However, the religious aspects of the pact between the ruler and the ulama remained sacrosanct. The ulama were allowed to maintain their monopoly over socio-religious affairs and ensure the preservation of their ideals of Saudi Arabia’s religious character. State-sanctioned ulama in particular remained crucial in providing religious legitimacy to the rulers and continued to act as advisors to them.


The acquiescent approach of the state-sanctioned ulama to the changing socio-political dynamics of Saudi Arabia was not well received by those who saw themselves as more loyal to Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s teachings. There were two major concerns for the Saudi ulama which have ultimately caused the fragmentation of clerical authority and destabilised the uniformity of religious thought in Saudi Arabia. The first is clerical political activism; the second is social change.



Political Activism


As the Saudi state became increasingly modernised, especially with the introduction of social, political and economic reforms, an intellectual gap emerged between “men with European style-education and men with traditional Islamic schooling.”[3] The introduction of western-style bureaucratised state institutions caused great anxiety on the part of the ulama. This led to the emergence in the 1960s of an intellectual clerical movement, Al-Sahwa al-Islāmiyya, aimed to counter the liberalisation of Saudi society.[4] The movement later embraced political activism following the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The movement’s members criticised the Saudi ruling family under the rule of King Fahd for its decision to allow a United States presence on Saudi soil as a base from which its troops could fight Saddam Hussein’s forces. The main opposition stemmed from the fact that, according to these ulama, cooperation with non-Muslims was impermissible. They based their opposition on the doctrine of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ (loyalty and disavowal), i.e. the requirement to observe absolute loyalty to God, which in turn required the total disavowal of infidelity to God and acts associated with it.[5] Sulaymān Ibn Abdullah, the grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, reconstructed this doctrine during the first Saudi state to legitimise the struggle against the Ottomans. This led to the overt excommunication of the Ottomans by Wahhabi ulama. The doctrine was later utilised by another Wahhabi ‘ālim, Hamad Ibn ‘Atīq, during the second Saudi state, who was critical of ‘Abdullah ibn Turkī’s decision to seek assistance from the Ottomans in Iraq in his fight against his brother for the Āl Sa‘ūd leadership. Hamad Ibn ‘Atīq was particularly critical of a fellow ‘ālim, Muhammad Ibn Ibrāhīm ‘Ajlān, for providing a religious ruling legitimising the move. He went so far as to excommunicate al-‘Ajlān for his endorsement of ‘Abdullāh ibn Turkī. Interestingly, many Saudi ulama, especially state‑sanctioned ulama, have gradually attempted to de-politicise al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ by emphasising only its social functions as a concept that requires Muslims to distinguish themselves from non-Muslims. This includes forbidding Muslims from celebrating non-Muslim celebrations.[6] When state‑sanctioned ulama were confronted by the state’s decision to repel Saddam Hussein by collaborating with the US-led international coalition, they supported the state. The Grand Mufti, ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Ibn Bāz, provided religious legitimacy endorsing the ruling family by issuing a fatwa pragmatically declaring the state’s decision to be justified by the principle of akhaff al-dararayn (the lesser of two evils).[7]


The first Gulf War contributed in many ways to the fragmentation of the religious field in Saudi Arabia. This was not an entirely new development: the ulama had previously clashed from time to time over religious and political issues concerning the direction of the Saudi state. However, divisions among the ulama had never been accentuated as much as they were over first Gulf War. Those who opposed the state were vocal and vehemently criticised the ruling family. This led to the imprisonment of popular Sahwa ulama Salmān al-‘Awda and Safar al-Hawālī. In the late 1990s, these ulama were released from prison and consequently co-opted by the state. This created a vacuum which was filled by ulama who were not reluctant to propagate violent jihad against the state, among them Nāsir al-Fahd, ‘Alī al-Khudayr and Sulaymān al-‘Alwān. These ulama belonged to the Shu‘aybī school, named after Hamūd al-Shu‘aybī. After the co-optation of the Sahwa they became the new face of oppositional ulama against the state and its religious establishment.


Most of them focussed on what they saw as the moral repugnance of Saudi society, extending to individual members of the ruling family, and the unholy alliances forged by the state with western powers.[8] September 11 saw the state try to grapple afresh with violent extremism, and in a series of crackdowns, Saudi authorities arrested and imprisoned Nāsir al-Fahd and ‘Alī al-Khudayr in 2003, and Sulaymān al-‘Alwān in 2004. The spike in violence propagated by jihadi militants on Saudi soil from 2003 to 2006 led to a vibrant debate between the ulama on the issue of jihad. This also exposed Sahwa ulama to criticisms, especially by state-sanctioned clerics, of allegedly inspiring jihadi militants. Salmān al-‘Awda and his Sahwa colleagues became more vocal against violent activism and expressed no hesitation in demonstrating their solidarity with the state against extremism.[9] As the threat of extremism subsided, especially after 2006, al-‘Awda and ‘Awad al-Qarnī, who were already very popular, continued to speak out concerning socio-political conditions in Saudi Arabia, albeit cautiously.


The Arab uprisings in the second decade of the twenty-first century have witnessed the unsettling of the existing political order in the region. The Saudi ruling family was undoubtedly concerned at the popular uprisings in the Arab region, as were the establishment ulama. In Saudi Arabia, the popular movements coinciding with the Arab uprisings were limited, although they extended to Saudi Arabia’s Shia population, families of detained al-Qaeda suspects and women defying the “driving ban”. Condemnations of the protesters coloured the rhetoric of state‑sanctioned ulama, including the Grand Mufti, ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl al-Shaykh. Ulama sympathetic to Arab revolutionaries outside the kingdom and protesters inside the kingdom were arrested, including Yūsuf al-Ahmad, a popular ‘ālim who questioned the indefinite detention of al-Qaeda suspects.[10] The Arab uprisings thus reignited divisions between state‑endorsed ulama and activist ulama and started public rhetorical battles between them.


Events in Syria soon took over broader regional concerns in the focus of Saudi religious debate. The state‑sanctioned ulama, although supporting the Syrian opposition without any reservations at first, later qualified their support so as to exclude Jabhat al-Nusra (later Jabhat Fath al-Sham) on the grounds of their extremism, and blamed activist ulama for inciting jihad in Syria. Activist ulama on the other hand absolved themselves from any kind of responsibility, arguing that although they supported jihad in Syria, they were always careful to dissuade young Saudi men from travelling to Syria to fight. This is true for some of the activist ulama such as Salmān al-‘Awda and ‘Awad al-Qarnī. However, other activist ulama were more passionate about the struggle in Syria. Their sermons and lectures were filled with rhetoric about the legitimacy of jihad and the responsibility to defend Sunnis in Syria. Muhammad al-‘Arīfī certainly fits this description. Although he is more celebrity than committed activist – he can boast 17 million followers on Twitter – in 2013 he delivered a sermon in Cairo’s ‘Amr ibn al-‘Ās’s mosque calling for jihad in Syria. His passionate call to arms alarmed Saudi authorities and caused his brief detention after returning from Egypt.[11]


The threat of Da‘ish (ISIS) gave rise to yet more debate between loyalist and activist ulama. These vibrant interactions, often publicised and widely circulated on social media, have further highlighted the fragmentation of religious authority in Saudi Arabia. Hātim al-‘Awnī, a prominent Saudi ‘ālim, boldly blamed Saudi religious traditions for providing a foundation for extremism, exploited by groups such as Da‘ish. He went further to argue flaws in Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s interpretations of some aspects of Islam, although he took care not to reject the legitimacy of the pact that bound Wahhabism with the royal family.[12] The Da‘ish phenomenon has even divided the jihadi ulama in Saudi Arabia: some, like Nāsir al-Fahd, pledged loyalty to Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī, while others, like Sulaymān al‑‘Alwān, vehemently reject al-Baghdadī’s legitimacy.[13]



Social Evolution


On one view, the bureaucratisation of Saudi Arabia’s religious institutions under the rule of King Faysal Ibn Sa‘ūd (r. 1964-1975) relegated the position of ulama as they became subject to state control. On another view, the bureaucratisation was a significant factor keeping the ulama relevant in the face of modernisation.[14] Whichever way, the Saudi ulama remained treated by the public and ruling authorities alike as the social leaders of Saudi Arabia. Social evolution takes place within the boundaries established by the ulama. This makes change slow and more gradual, as the ulama often resist social changes.


The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia (al-Nizām al-asāsī lil-hukm bi-l-mamlaka al-‘Arabiyya al-Sa‘ūdiyya) confers upon the sharia the status of the law of the state. The Saudi religious establishment is entrusted with the responsibility of interpreting the sharia; the execution of this responsibility has from time to time caused tensions with the Saudi ruling authorities as the country embarked on modernisation. According to Frank Vogel, the ulama are in contest with the state on issues of civil law, but are more in harmony with the state in the criminal sphere.[15] The ruling family would often circumvent the ulama’s decisions by issuing royal decrees.[16]


The bureaucratisation of the ulama has led to the establishment of various institutions including, at the highest level, the Board of Senior ulama (BSU). Although the Saudi religious police (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) is not ranked highly within the kingdom’s religious hierarchy, they are the public face of religious authority, entrusted with patrolling the streets to enforce morality. The religious police often harass men and women found breaching dress codes and gender segregation etiquette, at times causing death and injury. In 2016 the Saudi government curtailed the authority of the religious police, withdrawing their arrest powers – arguably another phase in the subordination of the ulama within the kingdom’s bureaucratic structures.[17]


The ruling family would often negotiate and compromise to allow for their desired reforms in Saudi society. In 1960, King Faysal introduced education for girls against clerical resistance. The government compromised by entrusting the state sanctioned ulama with overseeing the implementation of the new curriculum. This power play between the state and state-sanctioned ulama, especially through bureaucratised religious institutions, has long coloured the interactions and social evolution of Saudi society including on gender segregation, women in the workforce and even their participation in the Olympics. According to David Commins, the fatwas of fatwa­-making organisations can be divided into two categories. The first concerns issues on which the ulama are determined to preserve the conservative nature of the Saudi tradition. This includes gender-segregation and moral order. The second concerns matters where the clerics are willing to allow more flexibility, such as the media and medical innovations.[18] Moreover, although the Board of Senior ulama and the Permanent Committee for Research and Fatwas (second in the hierarchy after the Board of Senior ulama) have the authority to issue fatwas, it cannot be denied that some ulama have at times ignored and even contradicted official fatwas with their own declared opinions.


The ulama are far from united when it comes to defining social acceptability. On such social issues, the political categories into which the clerics are usually said to fall (establishment, activist) are unhelpful: there is as much disagreement within each group as there is between the groups. For social issues it is better to divide clerics according to the categories of reformists, traditionalists and ultra-traditionalists. Even these categorisations are by no means fixed: some may take a liberal position on certain issues and would take a conservative position on others.


The activist Salmān al-‘Awda, for example, is recognised for his compromising attitudes towards social change in Saudi Arabia; his colleague Yūsuf al-Ahmad might be in lock-step with him on political questions but is extremely conservative in dealing with social issues, even more so than most state‑sanctioned ulama. He is known for urging Saudi ruling authorities to construct separate entrances for women to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, which is not segregated. This concern has excited neither the Board of Senior ulama nor the Permanent Committee for Research and Fatwas. Al-‘Awda floats between clerical circles and Saudi modernists, some of whom hold decidedly liberal views about religion and state.[19]


No issue has highlighted the rifts between the Saudi Salafi traditions and the Saudi liberals like the ban on women driving. Al-‘Awda for example is committed to not taking a position on the driving ban, arguing that although he has his own views on the issue, he respects the diverse opinions of others on this subject.[20] Other ulama are more vocal, including ‘Ā’id al-Qarnī (an activist like al-‘Awda) who does not support the ban arguing that there are other serious problems which arise from preventing women from driving including over‑reliance on male drivers who are not related them. More importantly, according to him, the driving ban is not founded on credible religious sources.[21] This view has exposed him to severe criticisms from other ulama.[22]


It is no uncommon for ulama to face intense criticisms from other ulama for pushing boundaries in the re-interpretations of socio-religious issues. In 2014, Ahmad al-Ghāmidī, the former head of the Mecca branch of the religious police, appeared on the al-‘Arabiyya television channel to argue that the niqāb (covering of a woman’s face), interpreted by Salafis as a religious obligation, should not be compulsory. He even argued that it is permissible for women to wear make-up, as the practice does not contradict Islam. Al-Ghāmidī appeared on the program with his wife unveiled and wearing make-up.[23] The fact that al-Ghāmidī formerly headed the Mecca branch of the religious police has made his intellectual eccentricity even more fascinating. He was criticised by some members of the Board of Senior ulama, including the Grand Mufti.[24] Another example of such eccentricity is ‘Adel al-Kalbānī, who is a former imam of the grand mosque of Mecca. He issued a statement indicating that listening to music should not be considered as un-Islamic,[25] which enraged activists and loyalists alike.[26] From all of this it must be noted that Saudi ulama as a group is not a monolithic entity, nor are its constituent political streams. They are diverse, and their positions on socio-religious and socio political issues evolve. The fragmentation of religious authority has significantly increased the volume and frequency of contestations and negotiations between the ulama. This creates a space for debates on religious and political issues which is wider than commonly perceived.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Opponents of the followers of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb identified them as “Wahhabis”. Historically, the followers referred to themselves as Ahl al-Tawhīd. Since the 1970s, the Saudi ulama have adopted the term Salafi to identify their religious traditions for wider acceptance among Muslims.

[2] However, despite disagreeing with him, the ulama did not preach disobedience to Ibn Sa‘ūd. See David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (I.B Tauris, London, 2006), pp. 90-95.

[3] Ibid., p. 105.

[4] Stéphane Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, trans. George Holoch (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011), pp. 155-158.

[5] Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, (Hurst & Company, London, 2016), p. 11.

[6] Joas Wagemakers, “The Enduring Legacy of the Second Saudi State: Quietist and Radical Wahhabi Contestations of Al-Wala’ wa-l-Bara’,” International Journal Middle East Studies 44 (2012), p. 99-110.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010), p. 83.

[9] Ibid., 83.

[10] “Saudi Arabia: Free Islamic Scholar who Criticized Ministry,” Human Rights Watch, 2011, accessed at

[11] Raihan Ismail, “The Saudi ‘ulamāʾ and the Syrian Civil War,” in Amin Saikal (ed.) The Arab World and Iran: A Turbulent Region in Transition (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2016), pp. 83-99.

[12] “Al-Shaykh Hātim al-‘Awnī Dayf Barnāmij Liqā’ al-Juma‘a ma‘ ‘Abd Allāh al-Mudhayfir,” accessed at on 29 January 2017.

[13] “Shaykh Sulaymān al-‘Alwān: wāqi‘ al- Dawla al-Islāmiyya,” accessed at  on 25 January 2017.

[14] Muhammad al-Atawneh, “Is Saudi Arabia a Theocracy? Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia,” Middle Eastern Studies 45 (January 2009), no. 5, pp. 728-729.

[15] Frank Vogel, Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of Saudi Arabia (Brill, Leiden, 2000), pp. 2-5.

[16] Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996), p. 60.

[17] Lauren Said-Moorehouse, “Saudi Arabia strips religious police of arrest powers”, CNN, April 2016, accessed at on February 28, 2017.

[18] David Commins, Islam in Saudi Arabia (I.B. Tauris, London, 2015), pp. 51-60.

[19] Madawi al-Rasheed, Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia (Oxford University Press, New York, 2015)

[20] Salmān al-‘Awdah, “Mawdū‘ qiyāda al-mar’a,” accessed at on 2 March 2017.

[21] “‘Ā’id al-Qarnī: tahrīm qiyādat al-mar’a li-l-sayyāra fī al-Sa‘ūdiyya la yastanid ilā dalīl,” Al-‘Arabiyya, 30 May 2011, accessed at on 2 March 2017.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Don’t Wear the Veil, Saudi Cleric reiterates on TV,” al-Arabiyya, December 2014, accessed at  on 2 March 2017.

[24] “Al-Muftī al-ʿĀmm: As’al Allāh an yaftah ʿalā qalb al-Shaykh al-Ghāmidī wa yarshida-hu li-l-sawāb,” Sabq, December 2014, accessed at on 17 February 2017.

[25] “Al-Kalbānī yusirr ‘alā ibāhat al-ghinā’ bi-mūsīqā wa-l-istimtā‘ bi-l-sawt al-hasan,” al-Arabiyya, June 2010, accessed at on 2 March 2010

[26] Ibid

To cite this article

Printed version:
Raihan Ismaïl, “Saudi Ulama, Guardians of Change”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 70-78.

Online version:
Raihan Ismaïl, “Saudi Ulama, Guardians of Change”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: